Rereading the Parable of the Good Samaritan

This article first appeared at Evangelicals for Social Action.

Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is a brilliant gut-punch. At least, it was to its original audience. It could be a gut-punch for us again, if we can set aside our familiarity with the story.

We know some of the parable’s influence in our collective imagination. We name hospitals and classify laws in honor of the story’s protagonist, testaments to the story’s enduring nature. Unfortunately, that very popularity may inhibit our ability to allow the tale to challenge us. We’ve heard it so many times we no longer see the scandal in it. In this case, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but indifference.

Throughout history, interpreters have read the Parable of the Good Samaritan as an exhortation to limitless compassion. This valid analysis continues to push us to greater and broader love, but such a reading alone does not appreciate the full challenge Jesus presents us in the story. He also confronts our presumptions of who God can use. Jesus shows us that anyone is capable of exhibiting neighborly love. Jesus’ original audience would have seen the story’s hero, the Samaritan, as sub-human or as an enemy. Yet it is the Samaritan alone who extends God-like compassion, and acts as a neighbor to the hurting man. The reprobate, the sinner, the enemy; that is, one of “those people,” becomes a conduit of God’s mercy in this world.

Jesus displays his storytelling genius in the details he gives. With a little translating, these details ensure this story will remain provocative no matter the context of the audience. To begin, it’s worth reading the story again. I recommend going slowly.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25–37, NRSV)

The historical background of this parable is generally well-known. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day looked with disdain upon Samaritans, whom they considered heretics and half-breeds, the products of remnant Israelites commingling with Assyrian invaders centuries earlier. (It should be noted, Samaritans similarly despised the Jews.) To Jesus’ original audience, a Samaritan was the absolute “other,” against whom any smear could be said because everyone just knew it was true.

In casting a Samaritan as the hero of this story and portraying the priest and the Levite critically, Jesus is guaranteed to offend those listening to the story, especially folks like the legal expert who originally questioned Jesus. Jesus deftly upends his audience’s prejudices, in order to evoke a response. To the legal expert’s credit, his biases and shock don’t keep him from understanding Jesus’ point.

Let’s place ourselves in the role of that lawyer. He essentially asks, “Whom am I required to love, and whom am I not required to love?” As humans, we tend to shrink our circles of welcome, and then make those boundaries impermeable. We want to love only people we perceive as being like us. The lawyer’s question is often our question. Are we required to love people of other ethnicities, nationalities, or religions? Are we required to love people who cannot reciprocate, or who might squander our charity? Are we required to love people whose words and actions we find repugnant? Are we required to love people of other political parties? Are we required to love people who want to harm us?

The Samaritan can probably discern the beaten man on the roadside is Jewish. He would be safe in assuming the victim likely views Samaritans poorly. Yet he helps anyway. Therefore, we see the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” and after reading the parable, we see that the answer is, “Everyone!” Unsurprisingly, this parable is often used to illustrate how we are to help our fellow humans, no matter where they live or how they suffer. Our neighbor is every person, not merely someone who shares our ethnicity, nationality, religion, or other affinities. This sort of reading has motivated many excellent acts of compassion throughout history, and we still need to hear this message.

We could arrive at a similar interpretation, though—that everyone is our neighbor—even if the roles were reversed and the hero were an average Jewish person who crossed the social barriers of his day to help a victimized Samaritan. Jesus’ original audience does not come to a mawkish change of heart regarding the Samaritan’s humanity. The love Jesus describes is more than a disposition or a perspective. In this parable, Jesus shows us that the Samaritan loves by acting to the point of accepting the cost of that love.

Making the Samaritan the hero is not an incidental detail—it is central to understanding the scandal and the power of the parable. Jesus challenges his audience to see that the presumed reprobate has the capacity for God-like altruism. In fact, he is the only person in the story who extends it. The Samaritan does what we would expect of a person who keeps the Torah’s teachings. If we were to draw a picture of a citizen of God’s kingdom, we would probably come up with someone a lot like the Good Samaritan. In answer to the lawyer’s original question, Jesus shows the Samaritan, the dehumanized other, is capable of inheriting eternal life. The Samaritan becomes an agent of God.

Jesus pushes the audience by flipping the lawyer’s self-justifying question back on him. After the parable, Jesus asks his own question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He presents readers with the same challenge. “Who is my neighbor?” becomes a question we ought never ask. Instead, we should examine ourselves with the question, “Am I being a neighbor to others?” Jesus eliminates any definition of “neighbor” that has anything to do with shared attributes. “Neighbor” is now a moral designation to which we aspire—we hope we can be neighbors to others. And becoming a neighbor is contingent upon our showing mercy in tangible ways. Remember, Jesus’ conclusion is not, “Now think differently;” his exhortation is, “Go and do likewise.”


“Who is my neighbor?” becomes a question we ought never ask. Instead, we should examine ourselves with the question, “Am I being a neighbor to others?”


Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the parable is just how eminently translatable it is in any cultural context. For those of us living in America today, we have to peel away the layers of our cultural familiarity to recapture how a Samaritan hero would be controversial to Jesus’ audience. This parable has become so well-known that in our context the term Samaritan is now synonymous with a charitable person. To call someone a Samaritan today is a compliment of a high order.

Merely change the characters to modern equivalents and the power of the parable immediately returns. Cast in the role of the Samaritan a person you could never imagine being a part of your faith community. Make them someone from a people group who scares or angers you, a group whom you cannot envision God ever using to establish justice and mercy. Then change the Levite and priest to respected members of your community.

After the attacks on 9/11, I heard preachers tell the Parable of the Good Taliban Fighter, or the Parable of the Good Muslim. Thanks to our propensity to tighten the circle of people we think God should love and use, the possibilities for new Samaritans are nearly endless.

The Parable of the Good Gang Member. The Parable of the Good Atheist. The Parable of the Good Religious Right Christian. The Parable of the Good Progressive Christian. The Parable of the Good Syrian Refugee. The Parable of the Good Drug Addict. The Parable of the Good Oil Tycoon. The Parable of the Good Traditional Marriage Proponent. The Parable of the Good Homeless Man. The Parable of the Good NRA Member. The Parable of the Good Transgendered Woman. The Parable of the Good Black Lives Matter Activist. The Parable of the Good Communist. The Parable of the Good Capitalist. The Parable of the Good Environmentalist. The Parable of the Good Blue Lives Matter Advocate. The Parable of the Good Undocumented Immigrant. The Parable of the Good Hillary Clinton Voter. The Parable of the Good Donald Trump Supporter.

However you recast the roles of the parable, just be sure the new players make you feel uncomfortable. Then you’ll know you’re on the right track.

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Everything Matters: An Advent Reflection

Each Advent we again reflect on how Jesus came to be with us. This world seems to be an undifferentiated heap of chaos. Truth gives way to base opinion. Reason and morality succumb to power. Any gains of human generosity pale in comparison to the equally human destruction that is tearing Aleppo to shreds. We celebrate technological advances allowing us to move people and goods faster and farther, but these same advances have sped up the harm of our planet and made human trafficking easier. We can choose to ignore the turmoil in order to function, dulling our confusion with the glitz of the season. Or we might stare at the violence so long we lose hope. The search for meaning seems fleeting or delusional. In the midst of this existence, which appears at worst deranged and at best absurd, we celebrate Jesus’s birth.

Jesus did not arrive as a grown man or as a resplendent king at the peak of power. He came as a poor infant, born to parents who lived in a land occupied by an oppressive empire. They would have to escape a violent tyrant and seek refuge in a foreign land. Jesus shared our experience. He ate, slept, learned, celebrated, mourned, matured, worked, rested, prayed, and died. Jesus’s very life affirms our existence.

Christians believe that God will one day make the world anew. On that day everything will be completely right and just. Violence, evil, sin, and death will cease to exist. It is telling that Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem was not that moment in which chaos is destroyed and order fully established. His life, ministry, and resurrection inaugurate this new creation, but it has yet to arrive completely.

What are we to make of Jesus entering into our mess? The simple answer, I believe, is this: everything matters. (Admittedly this belief often feels like a weak conviction, a hope against hope.) All stages of life ultimately matter. Through Jesus, God gives human existence a stamp of approval. Jesus was a zygote, infant, toddler, youth, and adult. His eating, sleeping, learning, celebrating, mourning, maturing, working, resting, praying, and dying all mattered. His incarnation and resurrection affirms that none of what we may see as absurd randomness is truly meaningless.

God embraces our joy, hope, and even pain. The consolation we experience may not reconcile the evil and beauty we see. We may never receive the answers for why we endure terrible loss. But comfort comes to us in the fact of knowing God incarnate came to be with us as an infant, residing with us in our powerlessness. The God of the universe has experienced our confusion. Jesus saw firsthand the heap of chaos comprising our successes and failures, convictions and doubts, hopes and fears, beauty and ugliness. Jesus saw this heap and redeemed it. As Jesus tells his disciples after feeding the five thousand, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” (John 6.12) This Advent and Christmas, may you see God also inviting you to gather up the fragments around you, so that nothing may be lost.

Jesus is here!

God is with us!

Everything matters!

Jesus Loves Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and We Should Too

Just three days into the first of the party conventions and it seems Americans have become only more divided. News stories, commentaries, and my social media feed are filled with voices belittling the other side. Liberal folks are aghast any reasonable person could support Donald Trump. My conservative neighbors are confounded any moral person could vote for Hillary Clinton.

Both candidates have their serious flaws, but I will not detail those in this post. Instead, I hope to encourage my fellow Christians to step back from the vitriol and instead engage in practices that foster a love for your neighbor—even if that neighbor is someone running for president with whom you disagree vehemently, or one of their supporters.

Strong opinions are not the problem. Debates about the size and scope of the government are necessary and even good in our republic. We should not give up our principles for the sake of a facade of unity. Let us have those political debates in good faith.

I am concerned about the dehumanizing language surrounding Trump and Clinton by their strongest detractors, who seem to find nothing good in them. Trump and Clinton are painted as terrible people who embody evil. Taking such a view is a problem for Christians. To be sure, the candidates may have terrible character traits and support monstrous policies. These should be named, rejected, and called to account. But as Christians, we have means to understand that sort of thing. Both Clinton and Trump are sinners. And we know the story that, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5.8)

For Christians it is important to maintain these two theological and political commitments during an election season:

  1. All people, even presidential candidates, are created in God’s image.
  2. Jesus Christ loves all people so much that he died to redeem them—including members of political parties we hate.

If Jesus sees Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton as worthy of God’s love then surely we should too. The fact is neither Clinton nor Trump is perfect, but neither are they utterly evil. We must reject the temptation to think they are and engage in practices that help us see them as God does.

During the conventions when we are drawn to cheer, throw our shoes at the television screen, or withdraw in disgust, let us make it a point to look for the good in other people, even if we might not find anything in their political views or careers that is praiseworthy. Can you engage in an act of service or mercy for someone across the political aisle? Even something as simple as sending them an encouraging note. If not, at least take time this week to think about the candidates and their supporters, especially the one with whom you most disagree, and pray for them as children created in God’s image and for whom Christ died.

God made you in God’s very image. Jesus Christ died for you so that you might be reconciled to God. The same is true of your political opponents.

Jesus, Santa Claus, and Race

A video has been popping up in my news feed on Facebook that shows Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asserting both Santa Claus and Jesus were white men.

Kelly’s assertion is strange and in many ways this is a silly topic, but we can let it spur on an interesting discussion of race, ethnicity, and the Christian faith.

Let’s first address the historical matters. St. Nicholas was of Greek descent, born in the late 3rd century in Patara, in Asia Minor, or what is now modern day Turkey. The likelihood is slim that he had the white skin and rosy cheeks of popular depictions of Santa Claus. His skin was probably somewhere between the olive tones of Mediterranean folks to the brown hues of the Middle East. (See here for an estimated reproduction of his face.) One can argue, and some have, that Kelly is wrong for making such a strong statement that Santa Claus is white because the Santa who lives at the North Pole is a fictional character who has little connection to the historical St. Nicholas, who acted as bishop of Myra. Either way, Kelly’s assertion about Santa’s race falls apart.

Jesus, we know was born in Ancient Palestine and was of Jewish descent. He probably looked like an average Galilean Semitic male of his day. That is, he probably didn’t look like the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, soft-haired person portrayed in so much Western art. His complexion and hair were likely darker than those of most ethnic Europeans.

Some forensic anthropologists say this image is probably a better representation of what Jesus looked like

These historical matters make us question our preconceptions and depictions of Jesus’ appearance and race. Our ideas of Jesus’ appearance come to the front during Advent and Christmas when so much art representing his family is on display in Nativity scenes, or crèches. My family has several Nativity scenes throughout our home. They come from different cultures and depict the Holy Family in a variety of ways. We have a crèche from Senegal that portrays the Holy Family as Africans. We have one from Mongolia that comes with a yurt. We have another from America with the figures looking generally Caucasian-ish. In portraying Jesus and his family as Sengalese, Mongolian, or Caucasian, these Nativity scenes contain dramatic historical inaccuracies and thus limits their value as representations of what actually happened in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.

Senegalese Nativity

These multicultural crèches, however, contain enormous worth as theological mnemonics for the meaning of Jesus’ birth and incarnation. (Please don’t read that I’m making a Jesus of history, Christ of faith dichotomy.) The crèches from around the world show us Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” in our very specific circumstances. Jesus is present with the Senegalese on the plains and with the Mongolians in their yurts. I am therefore not so upset with depictions of Jesus and his family as northern Europeans. I think it is appropriate and necessary to have depictions of the Holy Family in which they look like northern Europeans, just as we need Nativity scenes in which Mary and Joseph look like Māoris or Peruvians or Sri Lankans to remind us of Jesus’ presence with us in our cultures and peoples. These cultural specific crèches can be wonderful tools for mission as well as a way for a culture to embrace the story of Jesus as their own.

Czech Nativity

The danger comes when we take these cultural specific representations and tell other cultures this is what Jesus looked like. This is what has precisely happened with the northern European Jesus with the flowing locks of sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. It has become the dominant image of the historical Jesus and a symbol of colonialism. Imposing this historically incorrect image on other cultures does not allow those people to experience the Palestinian Jewish man who wandered the Galilean shore speaking Aramaic and Greek. Further, it hinders their ability to experience Jesus’ incarnation in the midst of their language and traditions.

Mongolian Nativity

On the other hand, I believe our faith can grow immensely by reflecting on Nativity scenes from different cultures, just as our faith matures when we sing praise songs to God in different languages. We begin to see just how universal and intimate the God of the Bible is. Jesus came in a very specific time and place and he continues to meet us in specific times and places. My understanding, appreciation, and experience of God only deepens as I witness other cultures encountering Jesus. I love it that in a few days I’ll be celebrating the birth of God incarnate at the same time as my brothers and sisters in Korea, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Canada, Australia, and Bolivia.

As we celebrate Advent and Christmas, let us remember the historicity of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as well as the theological truth of his ongoing incarnation in our wonderfully diverse and beautiful world. May our Nativity scenes reflect both of these realities.

Check out the site, World Nativity for beautiful, culturally-specific Nativity scenes from third world and developing countries.